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Tips & Tricks

Shoot Expired Color Negative Film With Confidence

By Marlon Richardson on January 21st 2016

Most of us have heard horror stories about unwanted color shifts, haze streaks, and more pronounced grain from expired film. It’s true, all of these issues are a possibility when shooting with expired film.

On the other hand, the upside to expired film is that these films will usually be less expensive than fresh film, could still garner the look of fresh film, or at worst, could result in unexpectedly beautiful surreal photos.



The nature of film emulsions

When a film stock is created, it is made to attain an intended “best results” film speed specified by its manufacturer. The film speed determines how much light is needed for proper exposure and for most stocks is relevant to how fine the film’s grain is.

So why do film manufacturers include an expiration date on film?

Simple, assuming the film is stored well, the expiration date is the last date the film manufacturer can guarantee reliable results. Unreliable results include loss of film speed, where for example, 400 ISO film could react more like a 100-200 ISO film.

Another issue is the possibility of unexpected color shifts (i.e. blue tones), could lean more purple. Lastly, an expired film could lose some of its contrast.

Despite these issues, the most important factor that determines the quality of film is not its expiration date.



Tip #1: Buy Cold Stored Film

Not all expired films are created equal. The steady low dose of heat and radiation is the enemy that degrades film emulsions slowly over time. Lucky for us, cold storing film at or near freezing level completely suspends the slow death of a film emulsion.

For the most reliable results, try to purchase film that has been cold stored for most of its life. Film that has always been cold stored for the most part may not be any different than fresh film. It is perfectly realistic for expired films to last many years or even decades without losing even one step.


Tip #2: Overexpose Expired Film

It could be beautiful; it could be horrible. If you can’t determine how your expired film was stored, you really won’t know until you put it in your camera and shoot it.

This next tip comes with some caveats. In general, film stored in a cool and dry place will start to loose contrast and film speed after being expired for some years. Usually, the same lot of film will present some replicable consistency even for films long expired. If you have many rolls of the same expired film, I recommend that you sacrifice one roll for testing.

In good light, bracket your shots by first determining the correct exposure, shooting that, overexpose one stop and then two stops. From these exposures, you will gain some confidence about the film you have.

If you only have one or two rolls of an expired film, it’s best to assume a little of the film speed and contrast has been lost. Lean towards caution, overexpose 1-2 stops film speed and push process one stop for contrast just to be safe.



Tip #3: Cross Process or Desaturate

Inevitably if you stock up on expired films, you are bound to end up with rolls that exhibit all the worst results we talked about earlier. If that film happens to be slide film, look into cross processing these rolls.

*Processing slide film as if it was color negative film creates increased contrast and strong color casts that you mind find looks dreamy and surreal.

If you find that your expired color negative films colors just aren’t cutting it, consider push processing 2-3 stops. From the digital scans, desaturate then behold the rich monochrome photos that took next to nothing effort to create.

*Note: taking color negative film and developing in slide chemicals is also cross processing.

Expect muted colors with low contrast that might require a push of 2-3 stops.


Tip #4: Slower Films Are Safer

Over time, a film’s sensitivity to light diminishes. Faster films from 800-3200 ISO by design require less light for proper exposures with more pronounced grain. As a result, faster films will feel the effects of age to a greater degree than slower films.

This isn’t to say that you should avoid faster films altogether. Rather, just treat them like slower film by overexposing several stops or more and push processing if needed. Still, be prepared for the worst, even more so if you are unclear of how your film was stored.

Fresh or Expired

Maybe you’ve abandoned film long ago but still have some film tucked away in the freezer. Shooting film is fun and for many photographers is a refreshing activity that fosters creativity. For pros, film still has a place in your bag for the right situation.

Although I recommend using fresh film to shoot anything mission critical, expired film under ten years old that’s been cold stored is just as good as fresh film. Expired film will also be cheaper than fresh film, making it perfect for experimentation and testing lighting technique.

Bottom line, “Expired” is no longer a dirty word for film photography. Take these tips and go forth!

About the Guest Contributor

Marlon Richardson has over 15 years experience in wedding, portrait, and commercial photography. When not on assignment he happily spends time with his wife, Naomi, and their sons, Taze, and Brassai. Check out his work on his website.

This site contains affiliate links to products. We may receive a commission for purchases made through these links, however, this does not impact accuracy or integrity of our content.

Marlon is a South Florida-based wedding and portrait photographer, writer, and interactive designer. Involved in photography since the 90’s, his background began with repairing film cameras from a master Vietnam veteran, followed by years of assisting professional photographers then before starting his own business in 2006. Marlon at his heart is a tinkerer that has love for and adept in every medium of photography.

When not working Marlon is all about spending time with his wife, Naomi and two boys, Taze and Brassaï.

Q&A Discussions

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  1. Bubba Jones

    Excellent article and spot on! For years, decades, I have informed film shooters expired film is not the same as expired food. On the expiration date film does not go “poof” becoming unusable.  Shoot and enjoy expired film, it is good for you. Over my shooting decades I have shot hundreds of expired On a side note: In section two it reads “…film stored in a cool dry place will start to loose contast..”.  Spelling lose as loose (something that is not tight) is a common spelling error. Think lose as in loss, lost, losing, all containing one letter o.Cordially and respectfully submitted

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  2. Rob Ruttan

    I’ve come across some film that was shot several years ago and wasn’t cold stored. Does the film continue to decay after it’s been exposed?

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  3. Rafael Steffen

    Great article to understand more about shooting with film. The tones are so amazing. Can you still find Kodachrome?

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    • robert raymer

      You may still be able to find rolls of kodachrome, but to the best of my knowledge, the last lab that actually processed it shut down and now even if you could find it it would be a waste because no one processes it.

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    • Paul Nguyen

      Yeah, you can’t process it anymore. Realistically, it was killed by Velvia years ago. Kodak just didn’t keep up with the technology and Fuji just slowly killed them over time.

      With slides, Fuji had a winning trio in Astia, Provia and Velvia. They completely hung Ektachrome and Kodachrome.

      With negatives, they had the immortal 400H, which of course, dispatched Portra 400.

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    • Marlon Richardson

      I’m not sure Fuji 400h dispatched the Porta series. It sold really well for along time and Kodak updated the line 6-7 years ago. Kodak Portra 160, 400, 800 are the most popular color negative films by a margin nowadays.

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    • Paul Nguyen

      Hmm, maybe I was being a bit harsh on Portra. You’re right, it is selling quite well these days, but I think that’s because there isn’t anywhere near as much competition on the negatives front anymore. Kodak always struggled with slides because of their complex development procedures and they never caught up with Fuji once they started running away with Provia and Velvia.

      In the negative space, yeah, I think you’re right – Portra is popular nowadays. That said, in its heyday, I’m sure 400H would have been selling better than Portra.

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    • Marlon Richardson

      if you liked slide film I highly recommend Kodak Ektar 100. Side film performance with color negative processing.

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    • Marlon Richardson

      I’m sure some people still have the chemicals but they aren’t sharing it or selling it. Kodachrome is effectively gone unfortunately.

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  4. Ralph Hightower

    I haven’t been shooting as much film as I have expected, so I have a few rolls of film that is probably expired in my fridge. I also have a few rolls of Kodak TMAX 3200 in my freezer for when I need high ISO; they are expired, but gamma rays be damned.

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  5. Alex Petrenko

    What you tell client when something happened?

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    • robert raymer

      Unless you have discussed your plans to shoot expired film with a client prior to shooting (and have it in your contract), I would never suggest using expired film (or doing anything else that would produce unpredictable results) for a client. When a client hires you to shoot for them, they expect professional results. Saying “I used this opportunity to experiment on your dime” is not professional. This article has good advice about shooting expired film, but I would suggest doing it on your own time and on your own dime. Just my opinion though.

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    • Marlon Richardson

      if the film you use has been cold stored since its fresh date there is nothing unpredictable about the results that you’ll receive.

      If you can’t be sure of how the film you’ve purchased has been stored you’ll need to do some tests before any pro work.

      Otherwise, freezing film completely suspends the ageing process.

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    • robert raymer

      I think your 2 replies are more to what I was getting at. I shoot a lot of expired film, almost all frozen, and the results, as you say, are pretty predictable. From the tone of the question, however, It seemed implied (at least to me) that he was asking what to do when experimenting with expired film backfired on a professional shoot. To me shooting frozen expired film, after shooting at least a roll or two from the same stock to gauge how it is is entirely different than just finding a roll or two of expired film and throwing it in your camera for your client without knowing what will happen. that is what I would not recommend.

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    • Marlon Richardson

      Keep in the worst case scenario for an expired film is also the worst case scenario for fresh stock. If film is stored in a hot and humid place for too long it’ll ruin the film in ways that can’t be fixed.

      The worst case scenario for expired film under 10 years old that wasn’t frozen but otherwise in adequate conditions is a bit of discoloration and loss of contrast. Issues that can be tweaked in post processing.

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    • Marlon Richardson

      For client work you should have already tested a roll from the same stock.

      For example, if if you purchased a pro pack of 5 rolls of a stock you should test a roll on something personal. If it turns out ok the other rolls will be fine as well.

      If you use my tips to help identify quality expired stock you’ll be fine.

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